When we hear talk of pollution and industries harming the environment, we immediately think of oil and gas, plastics, and big factories puffing big black clouds into the sky above them. No one, it seems, thinks of the runway.
Amidst the exquisite creations, finely manipulated rich fabrics, bright bold colors, rich embroidery, and intricate embellishments, what we fail to see are the crude oil, water, pesticides, or landfills that play a big role in the functioning of the fashion industry.
The State of Things
A few facts to keep in mind:
- It takes approximately 2,700 liters of water (enough to sustain a person for three years) to produce a single cotton T-shirt .
- The average pair of jeans is responsible for 915 pounds of carbon dioxide during its life cycle .
- Dyes used for textiles are the second largest polluters of clean water globally .
- The equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is dumped in a landfill or burned every second .
- 108 million tons of non-renewable resources are used each year to produce clothing.
- The textile industry will account for 25 percent of the global carbon budget by 2050.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the apparel and footwear industries account for almost eight percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions today –almost as much as the total climate impact of the European Union. Yup, the whole European Union.
And the environmental damage is increasing as the industry grows. In fact, the fashion industry’s impact on climate change is expected to increase by 49 percent over the next fifteen years .
Despite their rhetoric and declarations to the contrary, the big fashion moguls are reluctant to change the way things are done, whether it is to slow fashion down or to become more transparent and accountable with regards to how their clothing is created.
Production of clothing has almost doubled over the last fifteen years, while at the same time the lifetime of a garment has been reduced by almost half. Basically, we’re buying twice as much clothing and wearing it for half as long .
Combine the Instagram generation – the generation of instant gratification and of never-repeated outfits – and fast fashion – that is the rapid production of clothes in response to constantly changing fashion trends – and you end up with over a third of women wearing an item less than five times before discarding it. Moreover, 43 percent of these women’s purchases are impulse buys and 70 percent of their wardrobes go unworn .
We may have painted a bleak picture of our future, but there is a silver lining.
A Shift in Perceptions
Consumers are becoming more conscious, aware now more than ever that they have the power to make a change. Every dollar they spend is a vote; where, how, and why they spend it matters.
More and more consumers check labels, research manufacturing processes, and pay attention to news and public opinions pertaining to a brand. In fact, almost three out of four consumers are now willing to pay extra for sustainable options .
Globally, consumers who prefer to buy from environmentally friendly brands with ethical practices have risen from 57 percent in 2013 to 72 percent in 2018 , with 77 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds being more likely to buy from an environmentally conscious brand.
The number of consumers who used the fashion revolution hashtag #whomademyclothes has risen from 50 million in 2015 to 275 million in 2018. In fact, searching for “sustainable fashion” online grew by 66 percent last year . Now those are numbers we like to hear.
Celebrities have taken on the challenge as well and they are fighting to change the system and shake things up. Emma Watson, for instance, has become a vocal advocate of sustainable fashion, having completed an entire press tour wearing only sustainable brands. Stella McCartney, who has been advocating sustainable fashion since the inception of her company and has become a pioneer in the field of circular fashion, has now joined forces with a consignment store in the US and offers customers one hundred dollars in credit to shop at her stores.
The list goes on and on, with Gisele Bündchen, Cate Blanchett, Drew Barrymore, Jada Pinkett Smith, Amal Clooney, and Meghan Markle (to name a few) trying to shift the landscape of fashion as we know it today. Similarly and on a smaller scale, buyers are affecting change within their own communities, using their voices and their dollars to advocate for change.
The good news is, it’s working. As the commercial advantage of brands investing in ethical practices becomes increasingly evident, companies from Chanel to Gucci have revisited their missions to align with the new rhetoric and consumers’ value-driven choices . Finally, almost everyone is talking about sustainable fashion. But what exactly is it?
Sustainable fashion is a movement that seeks to hold the fashion industry responsible for the way clothing, shoes, and accessories are manufactured, marketed, sold, and used, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects .
But what does this actually mean? Well, for fashion labels, this means producing fashion in a way that has the least environmental footprint and that is most considerate of humanity. For you, consumers, this means thinking about what you are buying and what kind of philosophy and processes you are supporting when you buy it. It also means thinking hard about whether you are really going to wear what you’re buying and how long you think you will wear it for .
It sounds daunting, but it’s actually not. There are loads of options for the environmentally savvy consumer – some might work for you, and some might not. The important thing to take away is that you don’t need to completely change the way you live your life. It’s the little changes and choices, the increased awareness, the small things done differently that, when aggregated, will make a change.
Here are a few ways to approach fashion in a more conscious way.
- Fair Fashion: If your main concern is humanitarian, research whether the brands you are buying ensure fair wages to support livelihood and education.
- Vegan and/or Organic Fashion: Both of these options reduce the negative environmental impact of fashion considerably, using fewer pesticides and protecting wildlife. However, it is worth mentioning that, in most cases, animal products are replaced by plastic or other non-biodegradable fibers, which often end up in landfills. We should also remember that even organic cotton requires large amounts of water to be produced .
- Local Brands: Transporting garments around the world to sell them in the mall nearest to you increases the carbon footprint of your consumer journey significantly. If you minimize the distances that your products have to travel, you automatically minimize those carbon emissions.
- Upcycled Goods: The process of transforming by-products and waste materials from items that are otherwise useless or unwanted into new materials or products of better quality with better environmental value significantly reduces waste. However, recycling items in this way often uses more energy than the production of new items.
- Pre-Loved Items: If you are looking for a way to be sustainable and make a difference without jeopardizing your style or wearing less of the luxury brands you have grown to love and admire, then circular fashion is the easiest option for you. It is also, arguably, the most sustainable. When you buy or sell pre-loved, you are saving the entire negative impact of production because the pieces already exist. You are effectively extending the life of the pre-loved item by an average of 2.2 years, thereby reducing its carbon, waste, and water footprint by 73 percent. This is the most direct impact you, as a consumer, can have.
A Case for Pre-Loved Fashion
The concept of circular fashion is gaining traction around the world as a way to reduce the industry’s impact on the environment. According to an article published by Showroom, “The guiding idea of a new circular system is that our products are valuable resources that must not go to waste at the end of their life cycles. Instead, we have to keep them in a closed loop through reuse and recycling. In practice, the term “circular fashion” means changing how we do things at each stage of the production process. To start, we opt for recyclable materials in the design of our products. Next, we use renewable energy and ban toxic chemicals in all production processes. Finally, we invest in the scaling of innovative technologies that can turn textile waste into new, high-quality fibers without wasting any energy or water.” 
One key component of the circular fashion economy is the re-sale, exchange, or loaning of existing pieces – a.k.a. pre-loved fashion.
Globally, the number of buyers of pre-loved fashion is increasing at a steady pace, reaching 56 million in 2018 from 44 million in 2017. There is a huge shift in the mindset of consumers; people are buying goods with a resale value in mind, and buyers of pre-loved items are gaining access to the same high-end quality manufacturing that promises a long life but for a much lower price. This explains why resale has grown 21 times faster than the retail apparel market over the past three years and why it is projected to reach a whopping $51 billion in five years.
According to a recent report, circular fashion has the ability to bring about the most tangible change . According to the study, if everyone bought only one pre-loved item instead of a new one this year, we would save:
- 7 billion pounds of carbon emissions, the equivalent of half a million cars taken off the road for a year
- 11 billion kilowatts of energy, the equivalent of lighting up the Eiffel Tower for 141 years
- 25 billion gallons of water, the equivalent of filling up 1,140 Bellagio fountains
- 449 million pounds of waste, the weight of one million polar bears
Buying and selling pre-loved items allows you to play a vital role in making fashion circular. Increasing the average number of times an item of clothing is worn has been proven to be the fastest and most effective way to reduce waste and pollution.
Make the change. Think circular.
Maya Talih is the CEO and Co-Founder of Riot, a circular fashion movement offering authentic, on-trend fashion must-haves and timeless classics. It’s an online pre-loved fashion hub where only the most stylish pass the curation process and every item of clothing epitomizes luxury and, most importantly, sustainability.
For more information on circular fashion and how to buy and sell pre-loved items, visit www.riothere.com.